Tuscan on Craig: As the deans know, there's a lot to love about Lucca

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Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Executive chef Roger Seanor displays one of the entrees on the menu at Lucca Ristorante: a pecan crusted sea scallop with steamed vegetables.
Click photo for larger image.

317 S. Craig St., Oakland

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Basics: This upscale, casual restaurant named after a Tuscan town famous for great dining has a menu that focuses on Italian cuisine. There is a patio for outside dining in fine weather and live music most weekends.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$13; entrees, $10-$15 at lunch and $22-$35 at dinner; desserts, $6-$7; wines, $8-$12 for a 6-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking in bar area that is open to dining room; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Free parking after 5 p.m. in lot directly behind restaurant; on-street with meters before 5 p.m.
Noise level: Low.

Although Lucca Ristorante is on South Craig Street in the heart of Oakland's college country, you are not likely to encounter many students dining there.

While students flock to the Original Hot Dog Shop or the many ethnic dining spots in the neighborhood, the Lucca crowd is more apt to be Carnegie museum curators, university professors and deans or the many East End residents who regard the place as their "local."

Steven Thompson, who had been executive chef at Lucca for the past six years, has left, and Roger Seanor has moved into his slot. If the menu has not changed significantly, it is because Seanor spent the past six years working in the Lucca kitchen alongside Thompson.

The lunch and dinner menus vary slightly. Unfortunately, the panini served with warm pasta salads that were once on the luncheon menu are gone, but the list of entrees is extensive. In addition to various pastas, there are fish, quail, pork chops and duck breast.

Grilled Quail ($12) is served with fresh pumpkin puree and sauteed zucchini and yellow squash and complemented by a sauce of port wine and fig jus. The pumpkin puree was an interesting and original choice of side dish for this entree, but the squash saute was somewhat puzzling. I would have preferred a vegetable with a crunch or a grain to go with the puree and quail.

Penne pasta ($15) is combined with tiger prawns in a creamy tomato and fresh basil sauce spiked with chili peppers. The chilis provided a welcome zing to the standard sauce, but the large pasta portion contained only four medium-sized shrimp. My favorite item on the lunch menu was Crimini Mushroom Risotto ($10), served as a vegetarian entree at lunch or as a side dish with pork chops at dinner. The chef has added al dente asparagus pieces and finely diced pancetta to the creamy rice, sauteed mushrooms and cheese. Each rice grain offered a chewy center that helped give a great variation in textures to the entire dish.

From the appetizer menu, I would certainly order Tomato Bisque ($7) again. It was not really a bisque at all as there was not a drop of milk or cream. It is a chunky tomato puree, intensely flavored and nicely seasoned with basil, red peppers and a bit of hot paprika. The chef uses fresh tomatoes. Served in a miniature white soup tureen, this zuppa del giorno was a better winter-night choice than any bisque I might have been expecting. The soups change daily. Other favorites of the chef are French onion soup, seafood bisque and fish chowders.

Zuppe di cozze e vongole ($10) is a sexy-sounding way of saying steamed mussels and clams. The steaming broth is seasoned with tomato, saffron and white wine and provides the extra bonus of a tasty dipping sauce for crusty Italian bread. Calamari pan-tossed with tomato, basil and arugula ($10) is an original way to prepare squid. The cephalopod is cut into bite-sized pieces, stewed with fresh tomatoes and greens and mixed with fusilli pasta tubes. This welcome change from battered and fried squid has a decidedly Sicilian flavor. Close your eyes, and you could be in Palermo.

Caesar Salad ($8), although created by an Italian chef, is American, not Italian. The Lucca version of the romaine lettuce classic was a disappointment. The dressing was bland and the parmesan cheese was soft and had been shredded rather than shaved.

Nothing on the entree menu is as authentic as the calamari, but there are touches of Italy throughout. Sea Bass ($25) is served with a pasta called pizzoccheri, which is made with buckwheat noodles, diced potatoes, lots of butter and seasoned with sage and garlic. In the Italian Alps, where this dish originated, it also includes chopped savoy cabbage, which makes it a close relative of our own halushki.

Filetti di Salmone ($25) is a grilled salmon fillet topped with beurre blanc and served with a round cake of thinly sliced potatoes baked with rosemary and lots of butter. The root vegetables that accompany the salmon are an interesting combination of carrots, rutabagas and turnips, a multicolored blend. A nice vegetarian entree is fettuccini ($22) with artichokes, fresh tomato and feta in garlic and olive oil sauce. A giant-size bowl of pasta was more than ample for dinner and for lunch at home another day.

Nannette Hazelton is Lucca's pastry chef. The desserts change daily, but tiramisu and house-made ice creams and sorbets are always on the menu. Tiramisu must be very popular; there was none left on either of my visits. Warm peaches and berries ($7) served with a scoop of ice cream was made with frozen fruit and little else. The Apple Bread Pudding ($7) served with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce contained lots of bread and very little apple. The pudding, made in a bombe-shape mold, was cold and tasteless. It lacked the custard quality that I expect in a bread pudding. Almond Creme Brulee ($7) gets my vote for the best dessert. Serving it with an almond macaroon was a nice touch.

Lucca's wine list is nicely divided into regions of Italy, France and the United States and totals about 100 wines. Strangely, for a restaurant named Lucca, the French and American wine selections far outnumber those from Italy and for the most part are more interesting and affordable. I would choose a Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc for $28 any day over a pinot grigio from the Trentino region of Italy for $40. There are 14 wines available by the glass, ranging from a California riesling for $8 to a California Cabernet Sauvignon for $12 for a 6-ounce pour.

The private residence that houses Lucca has been attractively decorated with dark green walls with colorful European advertising posters and high-backed upholstered chairs. The tables are marble or granite and set with linen napkins at dinner and paper napkins at lunch. I would love to remove the masses of plastic fruit and vines hanging over a partial partition, which I find interferes with the sophisticated elements of the decor. In the evening, the lights in the front dining room are dimmed beyond reason. Nobody likes bright lights, but it would be nice to have enough light to read the menu.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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